FEBRUARY 8, 2015 — Japan is an island nation geographically and culturally: It exists as far from the violence and chaos of war as a country can exist, yet still is a close ally of a warring United States.
Since the end of World War II and the introduction of a new constitution renouncing war, Japan has sent no troops into combat. It has sidestepped direct participation in the fight against terrorism. When the Japanese go to the Middle East, they go to donate aid, or to sell cars. Not to drop bombs.
This is why Japan is shaken by the horrific murders of journalist Kenji Goto and adventurer Haruna Yukawa, who were both beheaded by Islamic State. It’s not too much to consider their deaths to be Japan’sSept. 11, the warning that a constitutional commitment to peace no longer guarantees sanctuary. Japan as an American friend is also a target.
For the Japanese, there are two possible reactions: Confront the new reality, or recede from danger.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants Japan to step up, take more responsibility for its defense and give the country flexibility to use its military to protect citizens abroad. These would be elementary moves for most any other country. Japan is different. In Asia, especially in China and South Korea, many people believe Japan never fully atoned for the sins of past militarism. At home, there is also hesitancy: Why rock the boat?
So Japan’s m.o. is to sit out conflicts, opening its checkbook instead to support the U.S., its protector.
Abe is right to move ahead because while the wounds Japan caused in the past are deep, the world keeps getting more dangerous. With the terrorist threat spanning the Middle East, Africa, Europe and parts of Asia, America and its allies are stretched thin. Japan can be more active without abandoning its peace pledge.
Abe took the first significant step last summer, embracing a reinterpretation of what’s allowed under Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces war. Legislation that appears likely to be adopted would permit — for the first time — some direct military cooperation between Japan’s self-defense forces and the U.S. military and other partners.
These are very basic changes: If tension boils over with North Korea, for example, the Japanese could supply ammunition or share intelligence. That kind of cooperation, known as collective defense, wasn’t permitted under the previous interpretation of the constitution.
The two Japanese deaths in Syria are giving Abe the opportunity to sketch out the next phase of Japan’s shift from pacifism to modest engagement. His allies say Japan needs to revise the actual wording of the constitution to permit Japanese military personnel to rescue citizens in perilous situations abroad.
Abe is a nationalist and the Japanese version of a hawk, meaning he believes the country needs to trade in its weak self-defense forces for a robust military to counter a dangerous North Korea and an assertive China. That won’t happen nor, perhaps, should it. Most Japanese want the country to maintain its pacifist identity. The rest of Asia won’t stand for it.
Isolation isn’t the answer, either. Japan can find a way to balance respect for its post-war tradition of peace with practical guidelines for cooperating with the U.S. military and protecting its own people. Threats to both countries are more likely to intensify than to diminish. That’s strong reason for Japan to do more in its own defense.